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What’s Selling: Just Hatched – Guilford, CT

Owner Karen Helburn shares how she got creative from product to promotion.

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Just Hatched was founded with a focus on chemical-free and organic products.

Karen Helburn found herself in the children’s retail industry out of desperation. Her son was born with severe allergies to synthetic fabrics and dyes, forcing Helburn to hunt for chemical-free products, which was quite a feat in 1997 before the internet. “It sounds like the dinosaur age because I had to use the yellow pages to find brands and retailers with organic cotton,” Helburn says.

As her mom friends began requesting purchases, Helburn started hosting “tupperware parties” with her finds until she gained the growing following and confidence to open her own store. Just Hatched, a 1,100-square-foot space located on the Connecticut shoreline, is dedicated to gifts and clothing for babies including an extensive selection of chemical-free goods. “Our job is to join the customer in celebration, whether they’re buying for a sister, neighbor, grandchild or their first child,” Helburn says. “Our job is easy because they’re already giddy.”

Besides superior customer service and unique products, Just Hatched’s corporate baby gifting service has been another major draw over the past 22 years. “Most employers are expensing baby gifts and have no idea what’s being sent,” Helburn says, noting that Just Hatched works with corporate employers to select quality gift packages for staff who are becoming new parents. Another factor contributing to the success of Just Hatched is its annual tent sale, where Helburn purchases excess inventory from vendors as well as clears out her old stock. “I can make almost full margin and still pass the discount to the customer,” she says, suggesting that other retailers try something similar. “Customers love it, vendors love it and we love it—everyone wins,” Helburn says.  —Aleda Johnson      

How’s business? It’s been great. We have an almost 16-percent increase over last year, which is pretty good considering other retailers talking about losing share to online dealers. In this environment, I’m happy. We continue to grow every year—with the exception of 2008. People keep reproducing, so we keep selling.

Who’s your core customer? Grandparents are a large percentage of our business. They are the least price resistant and purchase emotionally. That’s as long as we hold up our end of the bargain, which is providing exciting product they can’t resist.

Any unique preferences of your clientele? We’re a shoreline community located not to far from the Long Island Sound, so it never ceases to amaze me how much nautical product we sell year after year. Lobster, crab and anchor motifs consistently do well.

What are your best-selling brands? Pink Chicken, Kickee Pants, Angel Dear and Petit Bateau. We used to carry Catimini, but I found they were competing too much with Egg and Pink Chicken.

How about toys and accessories? Jellycat is our primary plush brand, and they have an absolute cult following who know the names of all the animals. The Manhattan Toy Company is another vendor I can rely on for high quality. Honestly, the biggest surprise is the percentage of my sales that go to books—my customers love to read!

What’s your secret to attracting new customers? There’s nothing like a 23-year-old with a smartphone. This young staff member is more savvy than I am with social media and does great work with our Instagram and Facebook. We lean on Instagram more because it allows us to entice customers with beautiful pictures, which is always better than straight selling. I can tell when she’s posted something new because I will get three calls about pom-pom hats in one day.

Beyond the power of social media, how else do you draw customers? We have an employee who used to be a teacher and now does community outreach by reading to pre-k classrooms. We donate books for that. And for Valentine’s Day, the class drew some gorgeous artwork for the store. We hung it gallery-style, and moms loved coming in to see their child’s work.

What’s been your biggest challenge of late? Maintaining my staff is always difficult because I expect a lot from them for a retail salary. The best employees are those who truly believe in our mission. In order for employees to join customers in celebration, they need to be happy and care whole-heartedly. Selling will never be as effective, otherwise.    

Where do you envision Just Hatched in five years? As successful as possible because in five to 10 years I would like to sell it. My plan is to continue to shore up our walls and make careful decisions for sound investments. It should be airtight and turnkey, so someone can buy it already making money.

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